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Foreign Policy

Reconciling America First with U.S. Global Leadership: Trump’s 2019 UN General Assembly Speech

Oct 08 , 2019

Can “America First” be reconciled with America’s global leadership commitments? Can America’s focus on its domestic interests jibe with longstanding expectations of the country promoting universal values? President Donald Trump thinks so. In fact, he argues that if each nation looks after its own interests, the world will be better off: “Love of our nations makes the world better for all nations.” President Trump reiterated this pitch when he addressed the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly last September 24.  

No retreat from exceptionalism and values promotion 

Since coming to power, Trump has been a polarizing figure in U.S. domestic politics and a disruptive force in the international scene. However, his actions represent neither a retreat from U.S. exceptionalism and values promotion nor a break from the past. While it may be disconcerting to hear a global leader like the U.S. president asserting that it will prioritize its own interests in its dealings with others, all countries have their own version of “America First,” although perhaps less forcefully articulated especially to an international audience. What is of interest here is the extent to which this rhetoric and behavior undermines global rules and governance, how it endangers smaller countries whose leverage is weak, and, as such, relies heavily on international institutions to level the playing field. Big powers can afford to act unilaterally; smaller countries cannot. Thus, his position towards globalization and how he contrasted it with patriotism is disturbing for some: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.” This may play into the hands of other countries stirring nationalism to deflect criticism from domestic or foreign policies or to buttress the ruling establishment. 

Trump takes pride in rebuilding America’s great military, saying, “Hopefully, it will never have to use this power.” He added that: “In a world where others seek conquest and domination, our nation must be strong in wealth, in might, and in spirit.” He clashed with the U.N. over the right to protect innocent life against abortion and the right to bear arms for self-defense based on the country’s Second Amendment. Hence, he argued that U.S. will never ratify the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty.   

Trump did promote the values that the U.S. espouses but put the onus on other countries, especially their leaders, to take their stand: “If you want freedom, take pride in your country. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation. Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first.” The businessman-turned-President further explained that America will continue to promote religious liberties, gender equality and non-discrimination, and women empowerment.  

While some of his statements and posturing raised doubts about U.S. security commitments, Trump spoke of revitalizing its alliances. However, he reiterated his demand for partners to pay their fair share of the burden, claiming that U.S. has borne much of the costs while others free-ride. He seemed to have scored some success on this front as South Korea, Japan and NATO members in Europe agreed to increase their host nation support and defense spending. Although this may have generated consternation from longstanding allies, this position resonates President Nixon’s view that while U.S. keeps its treaty commitments, it expects its allies to assume primary responsibilities for their own military defense. In his 2017 speech at the APEC CEO Summit in Danang, Vietnam, Trump raised his expectations of the U.S.’ allies, saying that U.S. seeks strong partners, not weak ones. 

Cold War déjà vu 

Conjuring opposing visions reminiscent of the Cold War, Trump stressed that “the essential divide that runs all around the world and throughout history is once again thrown into stark relief. It is the divide between those whose thirst for control deludes them into thinking they are destined to rule over others and those people and nations who want only to rule themselves.” While not imposing his country’s values of freedom and democracy, he attacked socialism and communism, describing them as “the wrecker of nations and destroyer of societies.” 

While the criticism was directed towards Venezuela under Maduro, it can also very well apply to America’s great power rival, China. U.S. opposition to socialism, especially in the Western Hemisphere, runs deep, despite the thaw with Cuba initiated under President Obama. President Kennedy gave the green light for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion aimed at overthrowing Cuba’s Fidel Castro. President Johnson, invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 to thwart a revolution that would bring communism to power. Elsewhere, President Clinton expanded the community of democracies and market economies to countries in Eastern Europe after the breakup of the USSR in the mid-1990s.  

Trump furthered that: “These totalitarian ideologies, combined with modern technology, have the power to exercise new and disturbing forms of suppression and domination.” One may be tempted to ask if this was directed against China’s emerging social credit system or alleged installation of “back doors” in telecom equipment it exports abroad. Thus, Trump defended the U.S. “taking steps to better screen foreign technology and investments and to protect our data and our security” and “urge every nation present to do the same.” 

Fair, not just free, trade 

Trump withdrew or threatened to withdraw U.S. involvement in free trade agreements which he thinks disadvantages the country. The desire to have “balanced trade that is both fair and reciprocal” is central to his trade war with China and threats to impose tariffs on other key trade partners with which the U.S. suffers trade deficits. He said, “For decades, the international trading system has been easily exploited by nations acting in very bad faith.” While China did undertake greater reforms since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, they are not to Trump’s satisfaction. 

However, while issues of market access, forced technology transfers and intellectual property rights violations can be seriously examined, Trump’s demand for structural changes on China’s fundamental economic model may hit a wall. Moreover, it remains to be seen how tax and regulation cuts will entice more U.S. companies to bring back their production in the U.S. without disrupting supply chains and becoming less competitive. Trump’s linking of security and economics also disturbed adversaries (China) and allies (Japan, South Korea, E.U.) alike. His attempts to renegotiate past agreements, such as the NAFTA, or withdrawal from the same, such as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program, may undercut policy continuity and predictability. 

With that being said, Trump’s UNGA speech also opens doors and extends an olive branch. He said that: “Many of America’s closest friends today were once our gravest foes… We want partners, not adversaries. America knows that while anyone can make war, only the most courageous can choose peace.” While a withdrawal from the Middle East may not be in immediate sight, one may take comfort from Trump’s remark: “America’s goal is not to go with these endless wars.” This may bring relief to Americans weary and wary of prolonged foreign intervention, as well as to other countries anxious of the consequences of such adventure. 

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